This post is slightly off-topic, since it does not only concern retirement, but bear with me! In Sweden it is very common to own a vacation home that is mostly used during summer. The land is vast, and a secondary property with a simple standard and away from the major cities is relatively inexpensive. Over the years we have considered buying a summer house every now and then, but always opted for renting a summer house instead. The money I might pay for my own summer house will pay for many, many weeks of rental. And current prices seem quite inflated, so it is not clear how good an investment this would be. Unless, the summer house can also serve as a retirement residence. In that case it might be justified to risk the investment.
Why an island?
One reason we have not bought a summer house, yet, is that we could not quite agree on how remote our summer house should be situated. Far away from other houses to feel like we are in the countryside. However, not too expose so we do not have to fear burglary. I recently came across a house for sale that sits on a tiny island, less than 1000 square meters. I had always assumed that those properties are extremely expensive, but this one was affordable. Admittedly, the standard was very simple: no electricity, no tap water, no flush toilet. A similar house somewhere in the woods would cost a fraction.
But nevertheless: isn’t a private island the perfect combination of remoteness and security? And also, owning an island has always been a dream, an unattainable dream it seemed. So I am trying to explore if a small island in a lake (not the sea) with very simple living standards is a reasonable trade-off. And how does that trade-off look for the two use cases: secondary summer house and primary retirement residence?
The heartships of simple life
So let’s explore the disadvantages of a simple house on an small island: lack of electricity, water, sewage and space, as well as difficult access.
Connection to the electrical grid is something that some island have and some don’t. The installation of an underwater cable easily costs a few hundred kSEK, so this is simply reflected in the price of the property. The alternative is to rely on locally produced electricity and be very conservative in general.
Electricity can most conveniently be produced by solar panels, paired with sufficient battery capacity. For year-around living, this probably has to be complemented with a small wind turbine. Surprisingly, Sweden does not require building permit for a wind turbine of at most 20 meters height and rotor diameter of three meters. We can use a small diesel generator as a backup electricity source.
When it comes to electricity saving, there are a few important tricks. Electrical heating is out of question, a wood stove is the way to go. This is something I really enjoy, both the open fire and the wood splitting. A hot shower is more difficult to come by with wood as a heat source. Maybe a bathtub is the easier solution.
Gas can be used both for cooking and to power the fridge. However, a fridge consumes around 250 grams of gas per day, which corresponds to around 8 SEK, whereas an electrical fridge consumes electricity worth 1-2 SEK per day.
Washing machine and dishwasher both require electricity for heating and water pressure. We will see if it is practical to produce enough electricity for those appliances. The good thing is that they are used on demand: No sun and wind, no washing! An electrical dryer is certainly out of question.
Most islands are not connected to the water supply grid. The two options for water supply are drilling a well and pumping water from the surrounding lake. Water from a well will have better quality, but might still require treatment to make potable. For other purpose, such as dishwashing, both water from a well and the lake will be fine. Potable water could also be brought in canisters.
A major challenge is to avoid freezing in winter, which would destroy pipes and pumps. In summer house mode, we can just drain all pipes before winter. However, for year-round use, the whole system needs to be frost safe. This requires digging pipes deep enough. Even heating the pipes might be required.
Most Swedish summer houses, and even many permanent residences in the countryside are not connected to a common sewage system. The requirements on sewage treatment have been tightened over time, but there are many solutions for an individual sewage system.
Let’s start with the toilet, or black water. On the simpler side, a urine-diverting dry toilet can be used. This greatly reduces the stench and can be an acceptable solution for a toilet outside the main building. An advanced version of a dry toilet is the incinerating toilet, which burns the “stuff” using around 180 grams gas per use. It is also possible to build a flush toilet. However, those create much more black water, which has to be stored in a tank. The tank needs to be emptied regularly by a sewage truck, which is not really possible on an island.
The grey water from the shower, kitchen sink, washing machine etc. contains much less organic material and bacteria. Different municipalities have different requirements on how much the amount of organic material and phosphor has to be reduced before the treated water can be disposed. There are plenty of solutions for grey water treatment on the market.
Many private islands seem to be the size of a normal building lot, around 1000 square meters. That is enough for everything one might need around the house. But then beyond that, there is only water. Going for a walk or a run requires leaving the island. I am not entirely sure how this feels, and it is one of the reasons we will try out living on a small island for some time. I would imagine that the surrounding water will make up for the lack of space. Instead of running, take the kayak. The lack of space has one clear advantage: We can bring the can without the risk of it running away 🙂
For obvious reasons, access will be via boat. This includes transport of groceries, gas, waste, building material, etc. A motor boat is likely required, which consumes fuel and requires maintenance, maybe comparable to another car. We also need a dock on land that might come with additional costs.
In Sweden, there is another complication with the access: the time when the ice neither holds nor breaks. This is when the ice is still too weak to safely bear a person, but too thick to break with a boat. There is even a Swedish word for that situation, menföre, and it happens both in early winter and early spring.
The professional solution to this is a hydrocopter, a bit like a hovercraft. The semi-professional solution would be a light-weight and flat boat. You would sit in the boat and draw yourself over the ice using a fixed rope between the island and the land. If the ice breaks, you would have to continue breaking it, or pull yourself and the boat back on sturdy ice. A winch would certainly help, but also increase the weight of the boat. This is less than ideal, and one would probably avoid unnecessary trips to the land during this time.
After weighing in all the disadvantages of a private island, especially as an all-year residence, this still feels like a dream come true. At least as a summer house, and with potential for a retirement residence. Also, there is plenty of time to make the house fit for all-year use, while using it mainly in